Digging up the science behind vampirism

vampiregraveyard
This Halloween, let's dig up the facts about vampirism. (istockphoto.com)

This coming All Hallow’s Eve as you walk the dark city streets coming from a party or a haunted house, you might find yourself surrounded by creatures of the night -zombies, witches, vampires, maybe a serial killer or two. Now on this night of illusion and spooky fun, you know you are in no real danger, right? But what if some of our classic horror stories were based on scientific facts? What if there really could be a figure in the shadow thirsting for your blood? Are vampires just mystical creatures meant to be just a scary bedtime story or can vampirism be explained by science?

While stories of tall, dark and thirsty abound on the big and little screen as well as in books with the popularity of Vampire Diaries, True Blood and Twilight or darker fare like Fright Night or From Dusk till Dawn, many cultures have been steeped in vampire lore for centuries. Early incarnations in ancient times described them as more demon than human. In Mesopotamian mythology, Lamashtu, daughter of the sky god Anu, was a female demon who killed children and drank the blood of men and ate their flesh. In India, they told stories of the rakshasas, shape-shifting demons who were evil humans in a previous life. They usually were depicted as human with animal-like features.

Most of us however are more familiar with the undead human corpse variety called “revenants” that come back to life preying on the blood of others to survive. In the Middle Ages, many European towns were so sucked in to the legends that they would stake and dismember the corpses of “suspected vampires” to keep them from rising again. One of the most popular of this type of vampire is Bram Stoker’s Dracula which most of us have read or have at least watched the many movies based off it. Modern incarnations of the vampire tend to draw from this most famous vampire who was said to be inspired by the real life Romanian prince Vlad Tepes (1431-1476) who was a blood-thirsty mass murder who would impale anyone he saw as his enemy. (Interestingly enough because he was a religious crusader, in Romania many consider him a hero).

While today vampires are mostly found in books, television and the movies, accounts of real-life vampires still creep up occasionally. In a LiveScience article in 2012, it was reported that a woman’s body was found in a mass grave on the island of Nuovo Lazzaretto with a rock in her skull, which was considered a common practice to prevent a vampire from terrorizing the community. This particular case of vampirism was later refuted, but in Bulgaria, archaeologists have found several skeletons of suspected vampires in 2012, 2013 and just recently. We are not exempt here in America either. In 1990 signs of a vampire epidemic were found in uncovered graves in Griswold, Connecticut according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

Our obsession with vampires cannot be denied, but the idea that vampires are real and are living among us is still widely debated. Are vampires mythical creatures conjured up to explain things our ancestors didn’t understand like how the body decomposes and rare medical conditions or are the stories true? While there are those who like to consider themselves vampires going as far as to get vampire fang dental implants and participating in bloodletting rituals, does vampirism truly exist?

Instead of re-animated corpses rising from the grave, many modern vampires describe themselves as humans who are either born or infected with a vampire virus that transforms their DNA. While no self-proclaimed vampire has stepped up to be studied, there are certain medical conditions that could explain some of the qualities of vampirism and could be at the root of some of the vampire myths.

Porphyria

One popular theory of the origin of the vampire myth is the disease porphyria.  According to Scientific American, porphyria is a group of diseases that is caused by the irregular production of a chemical in the blood. The article explained that “some forms of this condition, such as cutaneous erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), lead to deposition of toxins in the skin. Sufferers are often sensitive to light since light activates these toxins. When active, toxins eat away at the skin causing disfigurement, including erosion of the lips and gums.” The vampire myth could have been created in attempt to explain these disfigurements. I am sure it wouldn’t surprise you to know that patients with porphyria also have an aversion to garlic.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Tuberculosis also presents in a patient with some vampire-like qualities. Victims of this lung disease tend to be very pale, eschew sunlight and spit up blood. Although caused by the damage to the lungs, the vampire myth may have been created as an explanation for this terrible disease. The fact that tuberculosis is contagious and easily spread also caused fear, leading to the belief that the dead were rising from the grave to infect their loved ones.

Catalepsy

The vampire’s undead qualities could be attributed to a disease of the central nervous system called Catalepsy. This disease causes the slowing of the heart beat and of the breathing of the sufferer, which before today’s high tech medical equipment would have made the person appear to be dead. So when the patient recovers, it would seem like they rose from the dead.

Is Vampirism just a myth created to explain what early science could not, or are there really vampires among us? Will the real Dracula please stand up? We may never have a real answer to whether vampirism truly exists, but that doesn’t seem to stop our growing obsession with these creatures of the night. Have a Fang-tastic Halloween!